Longevity for some is maintaining fans and picking up new ones along a gradual climb of a career. Murder by Death are on the heels of their fifth album, Good Morning, Magpie, and listeners are still rocking to the back wooded sounds and classic Cash drawl the band are known for. While much of what the band has done in the past has been minor, the new album's major change hasn't lost any sort of ground and theme the band has been known to let out. Adam Turla sat down to talk about the direction the new album took and the interesting writing environment that surrounded it.
Coming off of Red of Tooth and Claw, it feels like this album has a bit more of a brooding pop sound to it. It's dark at times and mellow at others. I feel like it's another side of Murder by Death we haven't seen yet.
That's the whole modus operandi of Murder by Death. We tend to make every record different from the last. As much for our own satisfaction as for the listener's. We've been doing this for ten years. I think of this as a career band. There are people that have been listening to us since the beginning that still buy our records. They've just stuck with us for a really long time. If we just kept putting out the same record, it would get boring for everybody. I see that happening a lot with bands that are contemporary, and I just don't want to do that. With this record, I just wanted a more upbeat [sound]. I wanted a more major key sound, versus purely minor. We just let the songs happen with that in mind. Two of the songs are about six years old. I had written down the lyrics. They were done. The vocals were done. I didn't know how to produce them. I didn't know what I wanted the band to do. I'm really happy how they came out. The songs are "As Long As There Is Whiskey in the World" and "Yes." We just weren't ready to play those songs six years ago. Now we thought of a way to do it. Matt [Armstrong] plays slide bass inspired by the bass playing of Morphine on "Yes," but over a traditional style song. Then on "Whiskey in the World," switching for me to a slide guitar part made it more interesting to play live and just kind of give the song a saloon type character. We added some piano. We added a lot more personality to the song that just wasn't there when I originally was writing it. Things have changed a lot over the years writing songs.
There's still a story behind this record?
I just feel like there's a whole storytelling element behind everything that Murder by Death does, which is great.
I didn't sit down and write a definite concept record like I have in the past, where there's a narrative. This one is really a collection of songs inspired by the moods I was in while writing. Some of the typical Murder by Death themes are in there - death, loss, drinking, dark foreboding presences. Because I was in the woods while writing the record, there's a lot of nature elements.
Is that something you haven't done before, putting yourself in that atmosphere?
The woods thing?
I certainly never spent two weeks backpacking by myself in the back country, not speaking to another person. No I've never done that. [Laughs] No. I'd like to do it more. Not for as long. Two weeks doesn't sound like a long time, but man, after a week, it starts to feel like a long time. There's just a point where I was potentially going to stay longer, but we had to do some shows. There was a point where I wasn't being productive anymore. The last couple of days, I didn't get as much work done as the first couple of days. I got so much writing done the first couple of days.
Not just lyrically, but musically, how did being out there and that connection contribute to this album?
I brought a guitar, but I left it in the car when I parked it. I didn't use it the whole time. I wrote all the songs as either straight poems, or I'd write a vocal melody with the lyrics and just kind of play with it. A lot of the songs have a walking tempo because I was hiking down a path as I was writing it. The actions I was doing while I was writing it, effected the moods of the songs. I was fishing a lot, standing in a river casting. I think it made it in the record.
You say think...
I was never like, "Action! I'm going to write a song about this." I just heard a melody, and then I followed the melody until there were words and I just kept pushing those words into sentences. I've never actively tried to write a song that sounds like "x" or whatever. I just let things happen. Usually, I have a slow writing process over a period of time. These were ideas I had for nine months - in some cases five, six years old - that I just never had use for, and I developed them, writing, rewriting and just changing every little thing about them. Then I brought them to the band and that was about six weeks. [Some of] the songs changed even then. This one song, I had one little melody and just two pages of poetry. In about an hour of practice, suddenly we had this really cool song we love, "White Noise," and it's probably our very favorite song on the record.
Is it more proud for you to go into the studio and work on songs you've been developing for a few years?
In some sense, I've been listening to those songs in my head for years, so they're almost old to me. I'm just happy that songs I've had stuck in my head for so long, finally found their purpose and fit really well on this record. With the last album, Red of Tooth and Claw, it's about a young man, intense, sort of growing into what he's going to be. He's getting fucked up. He's just a real sort of dirt bag. Eventually, by the end of the record, he starts to figure shit out. There's all this other backdrop around there. I was reading a review recently, and they were saying that this album picks up [after that], and it may be the same character. I thought that was really interesting. In an autobiographical sense, I guess it is. I was writing about that stuff then, and now these songs are a little more tempered, a little more grown up in a conscious decision. It's always interesting to hear what people say in a review. I learn so much about this band. Whenever you hear a band description, you're like, "Really? Do I sound like that? I don't even know who that is."
Something I wanted to touch on, and a conversation I had with Harvey from The Builders and the Butchers, we were talking about the shaping of your voice across the records.
I'm just learning how to sing. It's that simple. I've been in a band for ten years, and I didn't know how to sing. I was just like, "I guess no one else wants to sing, I will." I took voice lessons in 2004. I've just been getting better at it. I wish I could sing like I did ten years ago like I can now. You can't go back and change it, or else you're George Lucas.
Nothing you do to your voice intentionally?
I take better care of it now. It's really just that I was trying to sing high before. I have two theories. Most bands try to sing high when you don't know how to sing. The other thing is, when we started, we played a lot of house shows, and you could never hear the vocals. I started to sing low, so you could never hear it. I remember consciously thinking, "Dammit, I need to do something with the vocals so people can hear what I'm saying." I never felt good when the record was done, and it didn't sound right. Finally, I took voice lessons. At the time, we started to play at clubs. Suddenly, I can sing low and everyone can hear.
In the end has it been a complete learning process since day one?
We never meant to be a band. We just got together to play shows. We played for fun. People were telling us we were going to do really well, and it didn't happen. We did well enough that this has been my only job for eight years. The band has supported us in our meek earnings the whole time. It's only getting better as the years past. A lot of people say our band is like a grower. The deeper you dig into it, people seem to like it more. That's what our career has been.
This band is what music should be. Creative, entertaining, and magnetizing. I have been in love with these guys ever since "Who Will Survive..." and every record brings something new without ever losing their definitive sound.
Great guys, too. I have met them a couple of times. Once in their hometown after a show where I got a pic with Adam and us both yelling "AFTERPARTY!" and I have met them in Cleveland a couple times when they played. I remember after "Red of Tooth and Claw" came out, they played in Cleveland Heights and before they went on I saw Matt conversing near the bar so I yelled out "Hey man, great new record" and then he gave me a shot of whiskey. It was awesome haha.